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Keeping Secrets

Two women say a Fells Point barkeep raped them for years. The judge sent him back to his bar

Photo: Courtesy of Jeannie Virts, License: N/A

Courtesy of Jeannie Virts

Douglas Lester Sexton, circa the early 1980s

Photo: Frank Klein, License: N/A

Frank Klein

Sexton’s JHJ Saloon, aka JH’s


Shortly after dark on Dec. 9, 2011, a man slumps against the brick wall just outside the door at JHJ Saloon on the corner of South Castle Street and Eastern Avenue on the eastern edge of Fells Point. Sporting a scraggly brown beard and a marble-sized growth above his left eye, he looks up at a visitor pulling the door handle. “You’re walking into the mausoleum,” he says.

Inside, it’s Christmastime. A brace of older white folks take up the barstools while two or three people dance near the bar in the back of the room to Brenda Lee’s twangy hit “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” One dancing blond woman smiles and sings along. She is the owners’ daughter.

Behind the bar, an elderly blond woman informs the visitor that there are no taps and no bottled beer in this establishment. There are only cans of Bud, Bud Light.

Judge Judy is on the TV in front, the volume loud enough so you can hear her stern moralizing above the Brenda Lee tune blaring in the back. People need to take responsibility for their actions, the TV judge states.

Finishing his Bud, the visitor asks where he can find the bar’s owner, who goes by Lester. “Who wants to know?” the barkeep snaps.

City Paper wants to know.

“Well, I’m his wife.”

Whispering as discreetly as possible, the visitor tells the barkeep he wants to discuss Lester’s court cases. “Who told you?” she demands, loud enough to be heard over Judge Judy and Brenda Lee. “Man or woman?”

The woman insists that Lester is not here, fixing a cold stare on the intruding reporter as he leaves.

Outside, the man with the growth near his eye is at the bus stop across the street. “He’s upstairs,” he says of Lester.

According to records in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, two women say that Lester raped them for years, beginning when both were children. Douglas Lester Sexton was “committed” to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on July 19, 2011. On Nov. 11, 2011, he was found incompetent to stand trial for 22 separate charges of second-degree assault and child abuse by a custodian.

That Sexton, 77, is not locked up in a mental hospital but instead still behind his bar from time to time, still taking care of Danielle, his developmentally disabled daughter, is a curiosity. Some former patrons—and one of his accusers—suggest he is feigning dementia in order to stay out of prison. His lawyer, Jason Silverstein, says that the state itself found Sexton incompetent and has been treating him in an effort to bring him to competence. Silverstein’s law partner, Marc Zayon, says, “Someone like Douglas who is old and has dementia, he’s never going to become competent, most likely.”

And so it appears that Sexton will not face trial on the charges brought against him. But his case nonetheless illustrates the sometimes uneasy way mental health services in Maryland mesh with the court system and the administration of justice.

Ronald W. Reagan had just moved into the Oval Office when Douglas L. Sexton, a native of Ben Hur, Va., and his wife, Bridget Helmbright, took over JHJ Saloon (known to most as JH’s thanks to the logo, a “J” inside an “H”). They had moved over after selling Zebelean’s Lounge, a west-side joint that Sexton had taken over during the Nixon administration; Helmbright had joined him on the liquor license there in 1974. For nearly 40 years, Liquor Board inspectors have seldom noted any violations at either of Sexton’s establishments, and the couple have paid their fees and taxes on time and in full. Until the recent charges, Sexton had no criminal record.

JHJ prospered—or at least its owner did. Sexton bought several properties in and around Baltimore along with several nice cars and trucks, neighbors say. He had two daughters, Kim and Danielle, and a son, Douglas Jr. He also operated a furniture store/junk shop at 1736 Eastern Ave.

Neighborhood people in Fells Point remember Sexton as a doting father to Danielle. “He took good care of that girl,” says Deborah Tempera, a neighborhood landlord and sometime activist. “I used to see him ride around on this little scooter with this little girl on the back. He was always with her. Somebody told me he wouldn’t give up on her.”

Sexton’s bar shares some customers with Mary’s, a bar at the corner of Gough and Chester streets. Mary’s owner Jim Poniatowski says that though he doesn’t care much for Sexton, he doesn’t recall anything untoward about him or his place. Poniatowski says he remembers Sexton arriving on a bicycle with Danielle on the back, peering into his bar. “I said, ‘Can I help you? What are you looking for?’” Poniatowski recalls. He says that Sexton replied, “Lookin’ for my customers.”

In March 2010, neighborhood activist Victor Corbin complained to the Liquor Board that “JHJ Saloon does not do a good job of controlling its patrons in this residential community.” Several longtime neighborhood residents describe it as a heavy drinkers’ hangout but mostly trouble-free.

On March 1, a Thursday afternoon, there are beer cans piled on the coffee table in the Highlandtown living room Emily Natividad, 53, shares with her boyfriend, who identifies himself as Joe, and another housemate. All three have been drinking. They say they were all regulars at JHJ Saloon for 15 years or more. “It was a neighborhood hangout,” Joe says.

“I’ve known Lester 20 years, approximately,” Natividad says. “I heard he’s up on sexual molestation charges. Is that true?”

Yes, she is told.

“YES!” Natividad exclaims. “About time someone caught up with him.”

The group says they stopped frequenting JHJ late last year when they moved here, a mile and a half east of the bar. Asked if there were any other reasons, they produce a litany of gripes, recent and historic.

Before she had a state identification card and a bank account, Natividad says, Sexton “used to cash our checks.” She says he charged her $30 to cash a $500 Social Security check.

“My aunt Dorothy and him were best of friends,” Natividad continues. “They went on trips, everything. When she died I asked for his help to pay for the funeral. He lent me $700. And guess what? I had to pay $300 more” in interest.

With the news that Sexton has been found incompetent to stand trial on the molestation charges, the room erupts. “Bullshit,” Natividad spits. “He’s very clever. He knows every loop in the law.”

On July 14, 2010, Jane Catina Wilson went to the Baltimore Police Department’s Child Abuse Unit and told Detective Franklin Hunsicker that Sexton had sexually assaulted her beginning when she was 7 years old.

“The first incident was noon on a Sunday in 1978. She remembers the time because Douglas Lester Sexton used to open the bar at 1,” Hunsicker’s application for criminal charges says. “Victim was living with her grandmother (now deceased) above the bar at 351-55 S. Woodyear St. on the west side”—the address of Zebelean’s Lounge.

As the detective’s application relays it, Wilson’s grandmother would send her downstairs for booze from the bar:

The suspect had her go behind the bar where he threw her down to the floor. The victim remembers cutting her face when she was down to the floor. The victim stated that the defendant pulled her pants down and [then] he pulled his pants down and put his penis into her vagina. The victim stated that the defendant also performed cunnilingus on her and had her perform fellatio on him. The victim stated that this was the usual routine but once in a while he would just have vaginal intercourse with her. It happened so often the victim could not give the number of times sex occurred.

The abuse continued at JHJ, Wilson told the detective, as well as the furniture store on Eastern Avenue. (Land records show Sexton sold that building in 2004.) He would keep her overnight at the bar and raped her last on about April 21, 1983, at 3 a.m., the application for criminal charges says: “The victim remembers this because she was approximately 12 years old and her grandmother died on or about 17Apr83.”

Three days after the charges were filed in district court, Sexton transferred ownership of the couple’s home and the bar property to Helmbright. He also awarded her 49 percent ownership of JHJ Saloon’s liquor license.

Searching for a character witness for her husband, Helmbright called Jeannie Virts, now 39, who in the 1980s had worked as a live-in babysitter for Danielle.

“So his wife asked me to write a letter on his behalf,” Virts says at her kitchen table in Halethorpe. “I didn’t want to hurt Danielle. He always said, ‘If anything happens to me, they will take Danielle away.’”

Sexton’s lawyer, Jason Silverstein, confirms that he has a letter from Virts. Like almost everything else in the case file he shared with the judge, he has declined to make it public.

Virts soon had second thoughts about the letter: “I called his wife and told her I never should have wrote that letter.”

Sexton also raped Virts for years, she says.

On April 21, 2011, Virts says she called Sexton and got Helmbright on the line. “I was crying when I told her,” Virts says. “She said, ‘Oh my god.’ Said she would talk to him and call me back.”

Virts says she wanted an apology from Sexton, and when Helmbright called back, she asked to talk to Sexton, and demanded he admit what he had done. She says she taped the conversation, and plays a recording from her computer for a reporter.

In the recording, Sexton pleads with Virts, saying the criminal charges would kill him and kill Danielle. He says he would never rape anyone.

Sexton doesn’t deny having sex with either Wilson or Virts, focusing instead on his heart condition and the prospect of losing everything because of Wilson’s allegations. Virts becomes frustrated that Sexton will not apologize, and Helmbright finally says she’ll talk to him and have him call Virts back.

Helmbright calls back to tell Virts that Sexton says he was sorry if he ever did anything to offend her. Virts is incredulous. “What did he say?” she demands. “I mean, to offend me? I mean, he had sex with me from the time I was 11 till 16—wouldn’t that offend me?”

Helmbright asks Virts not to yell. “I have a splitting headache,” she says. “I’ve got my phone turned down as low as it will go but it’s still loud when people holler.”

The day after those phone conversations, Virts visited Detective Hunsicker, who prepared another charging statement. Virts told the detective that Sexton had befriended her when she was 11 and he was 48, according to the charging statement. He hired her to watch Danielle, then 3 years old, and Virts moved into the apartment with Sexton, Helmbright, and Danielle above the JHJ Saloon.

“The suspect would sleep on the couch and he had the victim sleep on the floor by the couch,” the charging statement reads. “[A]fter everyone was asleep the suspect would get down on the floor and have sex with the victim. The victim stated that there were three different positions the suspect would have sex with her, laying on top of her, laying behind her and have the victim get on top of him.”

Virts told Hunsicker that Sexton had sex with her every day either at the bar, the apartment above it, or the store down the street: “Along with the vaginal intercourse and the fellatio the victim stated the suspect also sodomized her, this went on for years.”

According to the charging statement, Virts told the detective that the relationship—and Sexton’s reputation—was no secret around the neighborhood back when this was going on: “The victim stated that people knew what the suspect was doing because the suspect was nicknamed Lester the Molester.’”

It is unclear why Jane Catina Wilson reported her abuse so many years after the fact. She has reportedly moved out of state and efforts to locate her failed.

“We were shocked by the second girl,” says Sexton’s lawyer, Jason Silverstein, referring to Virts. “We had actually spoken with her. She was actually a witness on his behalf, before she decided to do that. It was out of left field.”

Silverstein says he gave Virts’ character letter to the prosecutor and kept a copy in his case file. “I would never put stuff like that in the public file,” he says.

Silverstein says he doesn’t know what the accusers’ motivations might be. He never spoke to Wilson, never knew the history there. He says people in the Sexton family say they have no idea what motives there are for these charges being filed at this time.

Child sexual abuse experts say accusations like this often remain unreported for decades—or forever—as victims try to put their pasts behind them. “Their expectation is that no one is held accountable,” says Jacqueline Robarge, executive director of Power Inside, a nonprofit that works with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. “Often they don’t report it, or they talk to an adult and they haven’t been believed. More times than not [the cases] don’t end up in the criminal justice system.”

Adam Rosenberg is executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, which interviews child victims of sexual abuse on behalf of the Baltimore Police Department. “Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual case, when seen from 35,000 feet,” he says of the events alleged by Virts. “Someone who is looking for someone to watch their kids. [As] you grow up, you know the people you have to stay away from or avoid.”

Shortly after noon on Feb. 2, Douglas L. Sexton stands behind his bar, a plate of runny fried eggs in front of him. He wears a red sweater vest. His face is wrinkled but his eyes are clear, his body is trim, and his back is straight. “I don’t want nothing to do with City Paper,” he says.

At the mention of Virts’ name, the four regulars at the bar exclaim: “Jeannie!”

“Jeannie,” Sexton says. “Did she make a statement?”

It’s in court records, he is reminded.

“I had enough trouble with her,” Sexton says. “I’m going to try to put her in jail if I can.”

He is asked to talk about what is happening to him.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Sexton says. “It’s a private matter.”

Court records are public, he is told.

“Put yourself in my position, being in this position on account of what some asshole did,” Sexton says, thrusting a reporter’s business card back. “Don’t talk about it in this bar! Out!”

According to the online court record, on July 19, 2011, Sexton was “committed,” a word that usually means “locked up.” Not in this case.

Under the law, the defendant must be able to understand the criminal charges against him or her and be able to assist in his or her defense. People may be unable to do that because of mental illness or intellectual disability.

In Sexton’s court file is a form titled “Commitment to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for examination and report as to the defendant’s criminal responsibility at the time of the commission of the alleged offense and competency to stand trial.” Judge Gale E. Rasin, who heads up the Circuit Court’s year-old Mental Health Court, signed the form with blank spaces where conditions for a defendant’s release could be listed. Sexton was apparently released pending further mental evaluation, but there were no specific court orders for that evaluation.

On page two of the form is an addendum: “It is further ordered that the Forensic Alternative Services Coordinator is authorized to receive any evaluation reports, supplemental reports, treatment plans, discharge plans or any other information pertaining to the Defendant’s discharge.” The court file contains no such reports.

“This smells very unusual,” says Larry Fitch, the director of Forensic Services, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Very unusual.”

Fitch and his boss, Medical Director Gayle Jordan-Randolph, are speaking to City Paper over the phone on Feb. 17. When the court file was outlined to them, the lack of available documents caught Fitch’s attention.

When the state does the exam, Fitch says, the results are almost always in the court file. Most defendants found incompetent to stand trial have court-appointed lawyers, who refer them to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for the exam, he says. Sexton has a private lawyer—which in itself is unusual for incompetence cases. Fitch and Jordan-Randolph speculate that Silverstein hired an outside expert to examine Sexton and the judge went along with his or her finding (Silverstein says that’s not so).

According to Fitch and Jordan-Randolph, the system works like this: The defendant comes before the court and someone—could be the judge, the defense, or the prosecution; there is usually consensus—suggests that the defendant be examined for competency.

Incompetence to stand trial is different from an insanity plea, in which the defendant claims that at the time of the crime he or she was unable to discern right from wrong or control his actions, but the process for determining the defendant’s mental state starts the same either way. If the initial screening finds possible mental problems it is followed by a forensic psychological examination, in which a specially trained psychologist interviews the defendant after learning all they can about his or her past by reviewing “school records, criminal records, and clinical records,” Fitch says. If the forensic psychologist believes the defendant is incompetent, that finding is sent to the judge, who usually ratifies the examiner’s opinion. The psychologist is almost always—but not necessarily—a state employee, the pair say.

Once the incompetency question is settled, the defendant is examined to determine whether he or she is dangerous to himself or others. If he or she is found to be dangerous, the defendant will be sent to a state institution—the maximum security Clifton T. Perkins Hospital in Jessup—while receiving mandatory, court-ordered mental health treatment to restore competency.

But if a defendant is not dangerous, he or she is usually sent home.

Last year, 329 Maryland defendants were found incompetent to stand trial, most of whom were found to be dangerous and locked up, according to figures released by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. There has been controversy over the system. The Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute issued a report last fall titled, “When Treatment Is Punishment: The Effects of Maryland’s Incompetency to Stand Trial Policies and Practices.” The report claims that Maryland’s system keeps people locked up longer than they would have been had they been found guilty.

Under the law, the maximum stay is supposed to be the lesser of five years or the maximum sentence the defendant could have received. In February the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that prosecutors in Baltimore and Harford counties could not renew criminal charges against two incompetent defendants in order to keep them locked up in Perkins, no matter how dangerous the state thinks they may be.

But the people found not dangerous (59 are currently in the community) were never mentioned in the report. And there is some confusion even among professionals about what the law requires.

“If a person is incompetent, but not civilly committable, then basically under Maryland statutes, the person can’t be subject to any sort of differential treatment,” Fitch says—meaning they can’t be forced into psychiatric treatment.

Jordan-Randolph points out that “the next step is civil commitment,” but on a voluntary basis and not necessarily for the purpose of restoring competency to stand trial. How a person who is legally incapable of understanding criminal court proceedings is somehow capable of consenting to this treatment is unclear.

In practice, they conclude, most non-dangerous defendants receive voluntary mental health treatment that could restore them to competency. There is disagreement on whether the judge can order such treatment as a condition of the defendant’s pretrial release. There is no sign of such an order in Sexton’s court file.

In other words, being found incompetent to stand trial but not dangerous is tantamount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. It would appear to be a status worth shooting for, but Fitch and Jordan-Randolph say the state’s psychiatric examiners can spot any fakers.

“There are cases where the person is feigning the symptoms,” Fitch says, “but it’s unusual.”

Silverstein declines to share specifics about Sexton’s condition with City Paper, saying only that he has dementia. A Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson says she can neither confirm nor deny that Sexton was examined by state psychologists, citing patient confidentiality laws.

According to Silverstein, the state made the initial determination of incompetency in Sexton’s case. “The evaluations—all this stuff for incompetency—that’s with the judge,” he says. “I don’t put that in the court file.”

He declines to make it available to a reporter, and says that such practices are standard “as far as I know, though I am not an expert. This is the second competency case I have ever done.”

Douglas L. Sexton walks into Courtroom 509 on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday, Feb. 22, like a man coming to church. He wears a dark sweater vest over a white dress shirt, gray slacks, and loafers. He carries a tweed hat. His thinning white hair is neatly styled. Helmbright and Danielle come in with him and sit down in the second row of the court gallery.

Sexton makes his way around a City Paper reporter, seemingly without recognizing him, and slides down a wooden bench. He kisses Danielle tenderly on the cheek. “Whatever happens,” he murmurs to her, and the rest can’t be heard.

The Mental Health Court was launched in Circuit Court last year after several years at the District Court level, where minor crimes are handled. “The goal here is to gather in one place those people who otherwise would probably be put on probation without any assessment, without any guarantee of their getting treatment, and to put them in this special docket where they will get what they need: special monitoring and supervision,” Judge Gale E. Rasin told The Baltimore Sun last April. “And therefore, the public will get what it needs, which is protection.”

Rasin enters the courtroom at 2:10, silver-haired and smiling. The first defendant is a large man wearing short braids, a blue shirt, and more chains than a Dickens ghost. Three burly bailiffs trail him. Rasin says she finds the defendant competent to stand trial, even though he is dual-diagnosed with mental illness and addiction. The judge releases him on “original bail status pending trial.”

A few minutes later Rasin addresses another defendant, named Wilson, like a wayward child. He complains of being “treated like a criminal” during his nine months of drug treatment.

“If I was treating you like a criminal, you’d be in jail,” Rasin replies. “I didn’t have the heart to put you in jail.”

The talk turns to a residential placement for Wilson in an apartment-like setting. “See, I’m looking out for you,” Rasin tells him. “Mr. Wilson is just the picture of positivity.” The man smiles.

When Sexton’s case is called, Silverstein hands over a sheaf of documents—the latest report. Who compiled the report is not mentioned. The court is silent as Rasin and the state’s attorney thumb through it. Nothing is said for about 25 seconds.

“This pretty much tells us what I think we already knew,” Rasin says. “Are we then to schedule another status hearing? Thirty days?”

She makes it March 28 at 2 p.m.

Later, Silverstein tells a reporter that Sexton is in a Veteran’s Administration aftercare program. “In any sort of case where someone is found incompetent, the court tries to make them competent,” Silverstein says, contradicting the interpretation of Fitch and Jordan-Randolph, as well as the plain language of the law itself. “Just like anyone else, he goes to a doctor who meets with him and talks with him . . . to see if he can become competent.”

The case is winding down, Silverstein says. It may end as soon as the March 28 hearing, after which Sexton may be relieved of the burden of these monthly status hearings. “The state can either contest the competency or agree to the incompetency,” Silverstein says. “They can’t have him evaluated by anybody else.”

Whatever the state of Sexton’s mind, he knows he is in trouble. He recognizes the charges against him and the names of his accusers. He knows when he is in court that he might be taken away from Danielle. He was aware enough of his circumstances after the charges were first filed to transfer his property to his wife’s name, or to consent to it.

These facts say nothing about Sexton’s mental capacity in the eyes of the law. To the judge of the mental health court, who has studied psychological reports the public cannot see, Douglas Lester Sexton is not competent. That one of his accusers doesn’t buy it carries no legal weight at all.

“Now he’s playing this role that he has dementia. . . . He don’t have no dementia,” Virts says. “He knows what he’s doing. He is smart. He reads up on stuff. He knows all about the law and everything.”

The word “committed” in the online court file bothers Virts. “My brother was committed for selling drugs,” she says. “He’s going to spend his life in there. But they let [Sexton] out on the street. He’s more dangerous than my brother is.”

Virts opens a photo on her laptop. In the photo, Virts looks like she’s maybe 12 or 13. Sexton is wearing a straw boater. He is tan and taut in the early 1980s, when he was about 50. Virts says Sexton paid her parents $30 cash each week to let her stay with him.

“My parents used to drink a lot,” Virts says. “They would go to his bar a lot and drink. And he would give them free liquor. He would give them money.”

It is a weekday afternoon in February. Virts is sitting at her kitchen table in her wheelchair. The TV is on. Virts is asked why she did not leave Sexton.

“I was scared of him,” she says. “He wouldn’t let me leave. He had to be with me everywhere I went.”

Virts says Sexton escorted her to and from school each day until she dropped out at age 16. For more than five years she says she was alone only when she walked Sexton’s dog. One day she snuck around the corner to meet a guy named Mike. When she got back, she says, Helmbright and Sexton yelled at her and forbade her to walk the dog any more.

One day when she was a kid, Virts says, she and her brothers broke into Sexton’s junk store and stole some change. A neighbor ratted them out to Sexton and Helmbright. “I had to pay them back. That was the deal,” Virts says. “They wouldn’t press charges if I paid them back. I was paying it back for a long time.”

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